Thursday, January 31, 2013

Forgotten Music Thursday: Poco - Rose of Cimarron (1976)

None of the five members of Poco were commercially successful when Richie Furay exited the band in 1973 and without their acknowledged leader no one expected anything to change. In fact, at that point it wouldn't have been surprising if the band simply dissolved. They didn't, and when one of their many different lineups finally charted two big hit singles, "Crazy Love" and "Heart Of The Night," from their 1978 album, Legend, most of the world was surprised to learn the long player became a certified gold record.

Poco's 1976 album, Rose of Cimarron (#89 on Billboard's Hot 100), featured the remaining quartet of Rusty Young, Paul Cotton, Timothy B. Schmit, and George Grantham. Their streak of commercial disappointments remained in tact but fortunately, with Furay gone, everyone except drummer Grantham, proved they could write. When you add in the band's always pleasant vocals and their excellent musicianship (supplemented this time around by several studio musicians led by Al Garth) Poco gave the world as fine an album as they ever made.

The record had noticeable differences when compared to Poco's earlier work. For the most part Rose shunned almost all of the country-rock and bluegrass colorings that the Furay version of the outfit was known for as they opted for lighter soft-rock productions instead. Only "Company's Coming/Slowpoke" that closed side one ventured into their classic, familiar terrain.

The highlight is the absolutely marvelous opening track (#94 on the Billboard Hot 100) that gave the album its name. With composer Young's lyrics, gorgeous melody, and pedal steel, and shared lead vocals by Cotton and Schmit, the almost seven minute number became one of the outstanding creations of the band's career.

The song is based on a real historical figure, Rose Dunn, a young, nineteenth century woman raised in Oklahoma who fell in love with an outlaw named George "Bittercreek" Newcomb. Dunn was never really a criminal but she was always kind to Newcomb and his gang so in return they idolized her. Eventually, Dunn's two brothers, both U. S. marshalls, collected a bounty by killing Newcomb in front of their house when he came to visit Rose.

Dunn later married and lived out her life as a solid, law-abiding citizen. Although her exact age was unknown she lived into her 70s and passed away in the early 1950s.

Rose of Cimarron is considered a minor work in the legendary band's catalog. It's quite pleasant without being substantial yet it opened with a truly memorable moment that is an important part of Poco's legacy.

Listen to "Rose of Cimarron" HERE.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Jimmy Lafave - Depending On The Distance (2012)

Jimmy Lafave is constantly referred to as one of the very best unknown singer-songwriters in the music business. With a stellar twenty year career based out of Austin, TX you would think that an artist with his talent would be more well known. Sadly, he still languishes in near obscurity outside of Texas and his native state of Oklahoma.

It took Lafave five years to follow up his 2007 CD, Cimarron Manifesto, an outstanding set of thoughtful songs that prove his reputation is well deserved. It's an album with all killer and no filler so you need to own the entire album, not just individual tracks. In one of the more lengthy articles in the All Music Guide you'll find some of the most glowing praise I've ever read in a music review.

The trouble with making an album as outstanding as Cimarron is that it's almost impossible to follow it up and such is the case with Lafave's tenth album, Depending on the Distance.

Lafave's ego is not so large that he fills his albums with only his compositions. That's good because he's always had impeccable taste in cover versions and reinterpreting other people's songs. This time around five of the thirteen entries come from the hearts and minds of others. He turns John Waite's pop hit, "Missing You," inside out. He still gives it an uptempo treatment but without all of the melodrama of the original.

Then, there is a remake of Bruce Springsteen's more recent "Land of Hope and Dreams." While not quite as effective as The Boss's version Lafave proves that he and New Jersey's most famous son are kindred spirits. While one is a folky and the other a rocker they come from the same place emotionally and intellectually. Both have done tributes to famous folk musicians: Springsteen a CD full of Pete Seeger songs and Lafave a national tour dedicated to Woody Guthrie.

Lafave is known as a master interpreter of Bob Dylan and here he devotes three tracks to his idol: "Red River Shore," "I'll Remember You," and "Tomorrow is a Long Time." The first two are so good they actually make you forget the bard's originals. Lafave's less than overpowering voice is always pleasant and his gravelly, emotional delivery is actually more appropriate for this material than Dylan's is. The Texan winds up owning both of these songs.

Lafave's originals are always good too but if there is a complaint this time around it's that the album is too top-heavy with ballads. He could have easily turned on the afterburners just a bit more without alienating his loyal following. He's done that effectively in the past. The disc could definitely use a couple more boogie numbers such as "Red Dirt Night." "Talk to Me" and the gospel tinged "Bring Back the Trains" also have an uptempo sound but these soft rockers are not quite enough to get a groove flowing.

If you're a Lafave fan this CD should still be added to your collection. However, this time the covers are better than his own songs.

See Jimmy Lafave's website for more details.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Beatles - Let It Be...Naked (2003)

This appropriately titled reissued edition of Let It Be released in 2003 is something that was talked about and wished for by Beatlemaniacs for decades, ever since the Beatles' internal squabbles allowed Phil Spector to muck up the original album in 1970.

By the time the quartet was done with the recording sessions that accompanied the film the four bandmates were sick of the music and each other so the quite eccentric and infamous producer was brought in to try and salvage something good from the whole, tense affair. As John Lennon so famously said after he heard Spector's completed work, "..... he made something of it. When I heard it, I didn't puke."

For those who don't know, Let It Be...Naked is a remixed and revised version of The Beatles' last official album.  It will always be considered a minor part of their catalog but this updated CD, minus the the overly flamboyant clothes Spector used to gussy it up, is a better work of art.

The impetus behind this release was to fulfill the goal The Beatles originally intended while making the album: just the four of them playing in the studio while going back to their roots to make bare bones rock with little or no overdubs. It would be the anti-Sgt. Pepper.

Even before you listen to a single note you will see many differences between the two discs just by glancing at Naked's new cover. First, you'll notice the completely changed track sequencing. Also, two worthless song snippets, "Maggie Mae" and "Dig It" were removed from the new version in favor of the quite good "Don't Let Me Down," a song that was part of the recording sessions for both the album and film but left off the final product. Originally, the song had only been released as the flip side of "Get Back."

Then there is the actual music. All of the little extraneous conversations and side comments were removed from the intros and endings of the songs, a welcome change that made the 1970 album feel too much like rehearsals and unfinished tracks.

All of Spector's pretentious orchestrations and/or girl choirs were removed from "Across the Universe," "I, Me Mine," "Let It Be," and most notoriously, "The Long and Winding Road." The only non-Beatle who appeared on any of the tracks was keyboard player Billy Preston whose excellent and unique work provided some much needed spark to the proceedings.

Every song was edited or remixed in some fashion. Some minor overdubbing was used. Examples include "Winding Road" which added electric piano and guitar that weren't on Spector's version. The new "For You Blue" added some acoustic guitar. For "Get Back" The Beatles used the 45 RPM version but without its famous coda.

Also included in the package was a bonus disc with almost twenty-two minutes of dialogue and musical excerpts recorded during the 1969 filming. These boring outtakes are a once and done listening experience.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Fond Tribute to the CD

While the CD is not yet dead, or even on life support, it is definitely in intensive care. Over the last decade it's dominance as a musical format has declined to the point of no return so it’s time for a tribute to those shiny, little discs.

I was one person who immediately loved the CD when it arrived on the scene in 1982. I thought I had died and gone to stereo heaven because I always obsessed over the annoying scratches, clicks, and pops that records accumulated over time and I still don’t hear the "warmth" many of the vinyl lovers insist that they do.

As soon as I put my first CD in the little sliding drawer I appreciated its extra playing time (most double LPs could fit on a single disc) and the expanded sonic field. The increased clarity was apparent to me immediately on most percussion and acoustic instruments. Female vocals sounded far superior than they ever did before.

For the first time I started a small classical music collection, in part because the quiet passages many of the pieces contained could be heard without those extraneous noises, turntable hum, or damage done by the tone arm's stylus.

Another impressive thing about the new technology was the massive reissue campaign it spawned. Tons of out of print LPs were re-released as the record companies' archives opened wide. The extensive liner notes that accompanied many of them and the multitude of box sets that became quite popular at the same time were very educational.

You could easily play CDs in your car. All you needed to do was simply slide them into the slot on your dashboard. There was no need to worry about cassette tapes getting tangled in your player. As a bonus you could leave them in a hot car because they wouldn't warp or melt like vinyl did.

I became a fan of multi-disc players and in 1994 my wife bought me a Phillips five-disc carousel player for Christmas to replace my original single disc player. To this day, even though it's starting to show some signs of aging, I still use it on a regular basis, especially in December when during our annual Christmas Eve party I carefully program an eclectic mix of holiday music that plays the entire evening. It will definitely be a sad day when this loyal machine finally joins that great, eternal scrap heap in the sky.

Admittedly, the CD wasn't perfect. The record companies saw to that. The frequent hidden songs were always annoying, especially when they weren't given their own separate tracks. Too often the last song would end but the track wouldn't. Then, after perhaps as much as three minutes of stone cold silence the extra tune, whose title was rarely provided, would suddenly and, without warning, start playing.

Just as stupid were the blank tracks separating the last song from the rest of the disc. One example is the debut release from The Dave Matthews Band, Under the Table and Dreaming. After the eleventh song ended there were twenty-two blank tracks, each just a few seconds long, before the whole CD closed with the last tune, an instrumental named after its track number, "#34."

Another negative side effect encouraged by the CD was that artists often fell too much in love with its additional playing time. They frequently stopped editing themselves. There usually was a reason that the songs they left off of their old LPs didn't make the cut. Instead of choosing the best ten or twelve performances from the sessions for their new album your favorite band could now release fifteen or sixteen songs. Too many times these extras diluted the album, deceiving the consumer into thinking there was less good stuff on it than there really was. It's possible that this was a contributing factor to the demise of the CD. Listeners often believed they were laying out too much cash for mediocre music but the longer discs were almost always sold at the same price as the shorter ones so you were actually getting more songs for your money. However, I think the majority of listeners thought otherwise and this could explain the popularity of buying individual songs today. Music lovers no longer have to pay full price to get the three or four songs they enjoy.

Like almost everyone else who loves music I wholeheartedly embraced iTunes and I currently have over 7,500 songs on my 160 G ipod classic that holds 40,000. Most of the music from my CD collection is being transferred to iTunes and a growing percentage of my purchases are mp3s. I love my ipod, and the convenience it provides, but I worry about losing the whole digital collection should something happen to my computer. I'm still looking for a good, cost effective way to back everything up. I always burn my new purchases to CD to make sure the music is never lost and also because I don’t feel as if I own it if I can't hold a physical copy in my hands.

As wonderful as my ipod is I'm still going to miss the CD.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The 2012 Year End Review

A little late, here are Bloggerhythms' picks for the best releases of 2012.

1 – The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
The country-rocking outfit from North Carolina does it again with their second terrific album in a row. The banjo driven "Live and Die" couldn't be more catchy if it tried and you really need to listen to the great power-pop treat, "I Never Knew You." Most of the album is country music with a rock attitude. Great arrangements, songs, and vocals are everywhere. Rick Rubin has really turned the brothers into stars. Details here.

2 – Brandi Carlile – Bear Creek
Carlile's always mature song-writing blooms into full adulthood on this, her fourth, full length, studio album. Reflecting on her childhood and sometimes demonstrating a spiritual side she never displayed before the young singer-songwriter and her ever-present cohorts, the Hanseroth twins, gave us a top notch set of inward looking, philosophical songs. The ballads are sweeter than ever and the rockers are punchier than in the past. Read more here.

3 - The Beach Boys – That's Why God Made the Radio
Who would have believed that Brian Wilson would still generate magic with his old band one last time? He, originals Mike Love and Alan Jardine, along with David Marks, and long time member Bruce Johnston, prove they can still compete with the best harmonizers the world has ever heard. Best of all, Wilson closed the album out with a wonderful suite of tunes that take us back to the days of Pet Sounds and Sunflower. For a lengthy discussion of this very nice epilogue to the California group's very long and storied career read the full review.

4 - Charlie Phillips – What It Is
Charlie Phillips is strictly a local musician who works out of the Philadelphia suburbs but he deserves a much wider audience. The folk-rocker writes great songs, interacts well with his band, and has a small but devoted following. The singer-songwriters of the 70s form the bedrock for all of his music. He's also a lover of rock's supreme royalty, those loveable guys from Liverpool, England. The opening track, "Grace of God," is outstanding. Here's the complete, original review.

5 - JD McPherson – Signs & Signifiers
McPherson is a 50s throwback who has famously said he doesn't like any music after 1957. He might be a little closed-minded but that didn't stop him from using all of the best ingredients from many of rock's early forefathers like Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, and Larry Williams and mix them into a big stew with outstanding results. The Oklahoman might be fixed in his ways but if he is going to do only one thing he may as well do it right. Here, on his debut disc, he most certainly does. See more on this fine album.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in no particular order)

Mumford & Sons – Babel (Aggressive British folk-rock)
Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball (The Boss still has the goods)
Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream (Her best album in a long, long, time)

The American LP cover on Sail Records

Every once in awhile music fans are fortunate enough to stumble upon an old record that they didn't know existed and in 2012 I happily visited a very small, local, used record store while the owner happened to be playing an old Peter Green LP from 1979. Impressed, I quickly added the record to my collection. The long-troubled Fleetwood Mac founder really showed us what he was capable of on this fine album, In the Skies.